Friday, December 20, 2019

The Andromeda Breakthrough

A for Andromeda was one of the most famous science fiction television series of all time, now tragically lost. The follow-up series The Andromeda Breakthrough, broadcast in 1962, does however survive. Both series were co-written by astronomer and science fiction author Sir Fred Hoyle and John Elliot. Novelisations of both series were produced. They were credited to Hoyle and Elliot but seem to have been written mostly by Elliot. It is the novelisation of The Andromeda Breakthrough, published in 1964, with which we are concerned at the moment.

This sequel picks up at exactly the point at which A for Andromeda leaves off. Unfortunately it’s difficult to say much about the plot of The Andromeda Breakthrough without revealing spoilers for A for Andromeda. Since I have no intention of giving away any spoilers I’m going to be very very vague about the plot.

The premise of A for Andromeda is that a message has been received from deep space. The message comprises instructions for building a computer far in advance of anything known on Earth. Once the computer is built it begins to construct something else - a young woman. Is she human or alien? Is she woman or machine? Can she, or the computer, be trusted? What are their intentions? The British Government is terribly excited since this project seems to offer the opportunity to restore Britain’s place in the world.

To the astonishment of the British Government the whole thing goes horribly wrong. As The Andromeda Breakthrough opens scientist Dr John Fleming is on the run with a strange young woman without any memories.

It’s not just the government that is after them. There’s also a sinister international business cartel and the agents of a small Middle Eastern nation.

While there are definite spy thriller elements to A for Andromeda those elements are much more prominent in the sequel, or at least they are in the early stages of the book. The spy thriller stuff is fairly exciting and there’s plenty of cynicism for spy fiction fans who enjoy that sort of thing.

By the halfway stage the hard science fiction elements have kicked in again. And they do represent a further development of the ideas in the first book - the problems of complete mutual incomprehension involved in contact with an alien civilisation, the near impossibility of knowing whether aliens can be trusted, the danger of actions being misinterpreted due to extreme cultural differences, the sheer alienness of the motivations of alien intelligences. The unusual indirect nature of the contact with the aliens is so very indirect exacerbates the difficulties. These are issues that fascinated many science fiction writers but The Andromeda Breakthrough deals with them in a reasonably thoughtful way. The fact that the aliens never actually appear in the story but act at second hand through human agents and an artificial intelligence adds an original twist.

There’s plenty of ambiguity in this tale. It’s not just the uncertainly about the motivations of the aliens and of their partly human creation. The fully human characters are pretty ambiguous as well. Dr Fleming is paranoid and he’s right to be paranoid but maybe he pushes it too far. He thinks he’s being rational but can’t accept that he’s become emotionally entangled. Professor Dawney, the biochemist given the opportunity to create life, is perhaps naïve and is perhaps inclined to allow her scientific excitement to cloud her judgment. The politicians and businessmen who get mixed up in the affair combine unscrupulousness with breathtaking incompetence, greed and foolishness. There’s enough complexity, both moral and philosophical, to keep things interesting and there’s enough action to keep things entertaining.

While The Andromeda Breakthrough, both as a TV series and as a novelisation, is not as highly regarded as A for Andromeda a case can be made that it’s been somewhat underrated. The TV series was released on DVD but it’s very hard to find these days. The novelisation is quite intriguing. Recommended.

My review of A for Andromeda can be found here.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Arthur W. Upfield's Bushranger of the Skies

Bushranger of the Skies, later reprinted as No Footprints in the Bush, is a 1940 Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte mystery by Arthur W. Upfield. This time Bony, the half-Aboriginal half-European detective, gets uncomfortably closely involved in a case.

Somewhere in Central Australia Bony is on his way to the McPherson Homestead to deliver a letter to the local police sergeant, a man named Errey. It concerns some odd happenings in the area. While camped about twenty miles from the homestead he sees a dust cloud in the distance. It is obviously a car and since cars and few and far between on this unmade road Bony makes a reasonable guess that it is Sergeant Errey’s car. There’s nothing surprising in any of this. Bony is only mildly surprised when an aircraft appears from the west. He is however very surprised when the aircraft drops a bomb on his camp. He is even more surprised when the aircraft drops two more bombs on Sergeant Errey’s car, reducing it to a blazing wreck. This qualifies as very much more than an odd happening. And Bony is not overly keen on people trying to kill him.

The atmosphere at the McPherson Station is pretty strange. Old McPherson is a crusty character of Scottish extraction. Bony is sure that McPherson has a fair idea of the identity of the pilot of that monoplane but the old man obviously has some secrets he intends to keep to himself.

The usual Upfield formula was to adhere fairly closely to the classic golden age detection template but with an exotic setting somewhere in the Australian Outback and with an exotic detective. Upfield did however vary this formula on occasions, having Bony investigate a case in the big city or as in this book making the story more of a thriller than a tale of detection.

Both Bony and the reader know the identity of the pilot of the murder aeroplane very early on and we know roughly what his motivation is. What we (and Bony) don’t know is what he’s going to do next and how Bony is going to stop him. Bony doesn't quite know how he’s going to stop him either.

The culprit is a skilled bushman with a hundred and fifty thousands square miles of desolate country in which to hide, and he has allies in a local Aboriginal tribe and they’re even better at simply disappearing into the bush. Even with a team of police and aircraft and trackers it could take months to find the man. Bony, for reasons of his own, decides to do the job alone. He faces a further problem - he’s not the only one hunting this man. And Bony will have to find him first.

The difficulty facing a man like Bony, caught between two cultures and with strong loyalties to both, is a major underlying theme of all the Bony stories but in this novel it takes centre stage. All the central characters in this story are in their own ways in the same position as Bony, caught halfway between cultures. Bony has come to terms with his own situation but the other characters have not.

Upfield’s treatment of these problems might seem old-fashioned but that’s a superficial view. Once you put aside the fact that he uses terms that are now forbidden (such as half-caste) you’ll find that his views on these matters are perceptive and deeply sympathetic. He refuses to idealise either the whites or the Aboriginals or those of mixed race but he is fundamentally sympathetic to all three points of view and he is also fundamentally optimistic. Of course the book was written in a much more optimistic age. Perhaps the tragedy of our own times is the we’ve lost that optimism.

Upfield does perhaps spend too much time telling us what a remarkable chap Bony is and how clever he is, when in fact Bony makes a series of terrible errors and consistently underrates his opponent.

This is a manhunt battle of wills and wits tale. There is no detecting done at all. The suspense also doesn’t quite come off. The far-fetched and rather outrageous plot is the sort of thing that a Leslie Charteris could have pulled off effortlessly. Upfield doesn’t quite manage to bring it off. He doesn’t quite convince us to believe in the story, or in the villain. And Bony is not the Saint. He’s the wrong hero for this kind of tale.

One interesting aspect to the story is the assumption that the magic of Aboriginal magic men really does work. Bony believes it works and it’s pretty clear that Upfield expects the reader to believe it too. This is therefore a crime story with actual supernatural elements or at least paranormal elements. That’s a problem given that the the plot already stretches credibility to breaking point. There’s nothing wrong with supernatural thrillers but in this case the supernatural elements weaken the story.

Bushranger of the Skies is really not a success. There are much better Bony novels out there, such as the excellent Wings Above the Diamantina. This one is for Upfield completists only.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Graham Greene’s The Third Man

The genesis of Graham Greene’s The Third Man is rather interesting. In 1948 The Fallen Idol, directed by Carol Reed and written by Graham Greene, had been very successful at the box office. Since it also proved to be a happy collaboration it’s no surprise that Reed and Greene were anxious to do another movie together. That movie would eventually become The Third Man, one of the greatest movies ever made. But at the time he agreed to do the film Greene had only a single sentence scrawled on the back of an envelope - the mere germ of an idea about a man who is surprised to see an old friend named Harry Lime pass him in the street - surprised because he’d attended Harry’s funeral a few days earlier.

Greene was an excellent screenwriter but felt that he could not write a totally original screenplay. He preferred to adapt one of his stories or novels. Since in this case he had no story to adapt he would have to write one. So he sat down and wrote a story. Now he had something on which to base a screenplay. The story (a bit more than novella length) was never intended to be published. It was merely a quarry from which he would mine the materials for his screenplay. When the film was released in 1949, to international acclaim, his publishers persuaded him to allow the novella to be published.

It is of course essentially a first draft of a story. The completed screenplay differed from the novella in a number of ways. In his preface Greene is at pains to point out that the changes were not forced upon him. Once he sat down to write the screenplay he realised that some changes would be needed and he made them. He did not however revise the novella, which is what makes it so interesting. You can see the way that Greene’s ideas about the story evolved. The changes are actually not all that great. Greene was naturally a very cinematic writer and most of the scenes in his books lend themselves to film.

But the subtle changes are interesting. In the book the central character is Rollo Martins, an English writer of pulp westerns (the fact that he is an Englishman who has never set foot in America is part of the joke). In the movie he becomes Holly Martins, an American writer of pulp westerns. The Rollo Martins of the book is in some ways even more of a failure in life than the film’s Holly Martins, although perhaps marginally less naïve and marginally less self-righteous.

The only condition producer Alexander Korda imposed on Greene and Reed was that he wanted the background to the film to be the four-power occupation of Vienna (the city being divided into British, French, American and Russian zones). This was no problem - the war-ruined city dominated by corruption, with almost everyone involved in some kind of black market, was ideal Greene territory. This is very much Greeneland.

Many of the most memorable scenes in the movie are here in the novella - the encounter on the Ferris Wheel, the chase through the sewers - and while they’re better in the film they work extremely well on the printed page.

Greene felt that the film was better than the book and he was right but the book is still in its own way classic Greene and it’s still pretty good. When comparing the novella and the movie you always have to keep in mind that the story was right from the start intended to be filmed. The novella is essentially an extended rather literary film treatment. So the set-pieces naturally work better in the movie - Greene was creating scenes that would have more impact on the screen than on the page.

Greene was fascinated by themes of betrayal but it’s interesting that both The Third Man and The Fallen Idol deal specifically with the betrayal of illusions, and our reluctance to believe that our illusions are being betrayed. Even more specifically, they deal with the betrayal of childhood illusions. Harry Lime was the boyhood idol of Rollo/Holly Martins. Letting go of the illusions of childhood is part of growing up so logically Martins should finally grow up when he realises that his hero is a fraud and a monster. But this is a Graham Greene story so things are not necessarily going to work out so neatly. Nothing works out neatly in Greeneland.

The Third Man was published in an edition that also included the short story The Basement Room on which the film The Fallen Idol was based. My review of the film version of The Third Man can be found at Classic Movie Ramblings.

The Third Man is essential reading for fans of the film and for Graham Greene fans. Highly recommended.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Rex Stout’s Over My Dead Body

Over My Dead Body was the seventh of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. It was published in 1940.

A young woman, apparently from Montenegro, wants Wolfe to represent another young Montenegrin woman accused of stealing some diamonds. For some reason (which we will soon discover) Wolfe has a horror of anything remotely connected to the Balkans. He wants nothing to do with the case. Until he is informed of a certain fact which makes it impossible for him not to become involved.

The woman accused of the theft, Neya Tormic, is provided with an alibi in circumstances which occasion a good deal of surprise and even scepticism on the part of Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

The first murder occurs soon thereafter. It won’t be the last.

The big question is why a British spy should be mixed up in all this. And a German spy as well. And why are the Feds so interested? Wolfe and Archie are not accustomed to G-men taking an interest in their case and they’re not very happy about it. Inspector Cramer of the Homicide Bureau is even less fond of the FBI and even less happy. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the G-men appear not to have a clue what they’re doing and as the tale unfolds they become steadily more ineffectual and bewildered.

And it’s not just spies. There’s a princess involved as well, and princesses are even more worrying than spies.

So this is a political thriller of sorts as well as a murder mystery. Fortunately Wolfe resists the temptation to focus too much on the political aspects. The Balkan angle adds colour and a touch of exoticism rather than being an excuse to belabour us with political lectures. Although Wolfe does display a vast contempt for bankers and international financiers.

In this book we find out some very surprising things about Wolfe’s past. It’s more than a little disconcerting to think of Wolfe as a father. Which he is. Possibly. In a way.

There’s nothing startling about the murder methods employed in this novel (even if one takes place in a fencing academy). There’s certainly nothing remotely impossible about any of the crimes. Alibis play a comparatively minor rôle. The motives are more important than the method. Indeed, the motives behind the alibis are more important than the alibis. Stout is often disparaged for his plotting abilities. He was certainly no Freeman Wills Crofts but he was actually quite competent in that area and the plot in this case is perfectly serviceable. In fact it’s quite good.

I’m more and more struck by the similarities between Nero Wolfe and Perry Mason. Both are willing to play fast and loose with legal niceties to protect the interests of their clients, even to the extent of concealing witnesses and concealing vital information from the police. They’re both fundamentally honest and they’re carful not to do anything actually illegal but both are aware that the odds are stacked against the individual so that it’s necessary for both an attorney and a private detective to take steps to protect a client from the overwhelming power of the police and the legal system.

Archie Goodwin is in fine form, relishing the various opportunities the case offers to hoodwink the police. And he gets to slug a witness which he enjoys very much indeed.

Over My Dead Body offers a decent plot, intriguing revelations about Nero Wolfe, international intrigue, sparkling dialogue and plenty of fun. Not the best of the Nero Wolfe mysteries but still extremely good. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Eric Ambler's Uncommon Danger

Uncommon Danger (published in the United States as Background to Danger) was the second spy thriller written by Englishman Eric Ambler (1909-1998). It was published in 1937. Ambler is one of the most important figures in the evolution of spy fiction. During the 1930s Ambler and Graham Greene revolutionised the genre. In place of hearty British heroes like Bulldog Drummond Ambler gave us innocents caught up in the dangerous world of espionage. Not quite bumbling amateurs - Ambler’s protagonists are usually reasonably intelligent men but they find themselves hopelessly out of their depth and they must either sink or learn to swim.

The protagonist of Uncommon Danger is a half-Irish half-French reporter named Kenton. Kenton is a free-lancer. This is financially a rather precarious profession and his weakness for gambling makes it even more precarious. Not for the first time in his life he is broke. He heads for Vienna, hoping to borrow some money from an acquaintance who owes him a favour. On the train he encounters a man named Sachs who makes him a tempting proposition - all Kenton has to do is to carry a package over the frontier ands for this very simple task he will receive six hundred marks. Sachs claims to be a Jewish refugee and claims that the package contains securities. Kenton is not a complete fool and it is obvious to him that the story Sachs has been spinning is a tissue of lies from start to finish, but he needs those six hundred marks.

This simple task soon becomes very complicated, with people getting killed. And it’s obvious that there are several groups of people who want that package and they don’t mind how many more people they have to kill.

At this stage Kenton has no idea what is going on but when he’s struck a vicious blow over the head, is kidnapped and then tortured he figures that the people doing this things are probably bad guys. But is the other group tying to get the package the good guys or just another faction of bad guys? Are there any good guys? Are they spies or counter-spies or common criminals or something else?

The package is not just a McGuffin. The nature of the contents of the package is crucial in determining Kenton’s actions. Kenton is not a particularly political person and not even a particularly moral person but there are some things that do offend his moral sensibilities enough to cause him to dig his heels in and even risk his life. Kenton has reached the point in his life when he cannot evade responsibility.

For Ambler espionage and politics were very much entangled. In this story the confrontations between fascism and socialism and liberal democracy form an essential part of the background but there’s more to it than that. Politics is a game that is not played only by politicians - it is also played by Big Business and their ethical standards are even lower than those of politicians. There are also old-fashioned territorial disputes between nations. In this case a long-standing quarrel between Romania and the Soviet Union, complicated by internal Romanian politics. The players in the game that Kenton has stumbled into include oil tycoons and Soviet spies.

As in all of Ambler’s early work it would be a mistake to assume that the Soviets are necessarily going to be the bad guys and it would be an even bigger mistake to assume that respectable British businessman are going to be the good guys. Of course whether the various players are good guys or bad guys they’re all out to advance their own interests so Kenton is not at all sure if he can trust any of them.

This is an Eric Ambler novel so the fact that Kenton has been caught up in the world of spies does not mean that he is instantly transformed into James Bond. He’s a reporter. He is not a tough guy. He is afraid of guns. He does his best. Being a reporter who has spent his career covering central Europe he does at least have some understanding of politics and considerable understanding of human duplicity. Occasionally he even manages to keep a step ahead of the professional spies but he makes lots of elementary mistakes and he has no hope of survival without some help from people who actually know what they’re doing.

This was 1937, a very troubled time. Austria’s future is uncertain. Anschluss hasn’t happened but it’s on the horizon. Poland and Czechoslovakia are engaged in desperate diplomatic manoeuvrings. Everyone is trying to join an alliance, or escape from one. No-one knows whether alliance with Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union would be the safer option. Codreanu’s Iron Guard are awaiting their opportunity in Romania. And for ruthless industrialists there are opportunities for profit. They’re more unscrupulous even than the politicians.

The plot is complex and devious but Ambler doesn’t get bogged down in details. He’s more interested in the psychology of espionage and betrayal than in the minutiae. And he keeps the excitement level high. Terrific entertainment. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Elspeth Huxley's Murder on Safari

Elspeth Huxley (1907-1997) was an English writer best known for her non-fiction books about her childhood in Africa. She also wrote a handful of murder mysteries the second of which, Murder on Safari, appeared in 1938.

The setting is, obviously, Africa. In fact it is certainly Kenya. This was the twilight of the British Empire although the British hadn't quite realised that yet. Danny de Mare is a white hunter (which is used throughout the book as his job description) and he’s currently leading a safari. The safari comprises the very wealthy Lady Baradale, her husband Lord Baradale, his daughter Cara and her fiancé Sir Gordon Catchpole. The other Europeans in the party are Rutley, Lady Baradale’s chauffeur/mechanic, Cara’s maid Paula, a second white hunter named Luke Engelbrecht and Mrs Chris Davis, a pilot who cuts as a spotter for the safari.

De Mare has informed Superintendent Vachell of the Chania Police that some very valuable jewels of Lady Baradale’s have been stolen from a safe in her tent. Since Luke Engelbrecht has now been fired de Mare suggests that Vachell could join the safari undercover, posing as a white hunter. Vachell adopts the suggestion.

Unfortunately Vachell’s masquerade isn’t very successful and in any case he has to reveal his identity when the first murder occurs. This first murder is ingenious and the second is fiendishly clever.

It’s fun seeing what is basically a country house murder translated to Africa. The camp is a hundred miles from the nearest town. The roads are bad and quite impossible when it rains (which it does frequently) so the camp is effectively isolated. This means that the killer must be one of the nine Europeans with the safari. There are no less than thirty-six African cooks, gun-bearers, porters, etc but Huxley knows her rules of detective fiction. It is simply accepted by everyone that the murderer cannot be one of the African servants.

The African setting is used very cleverly. Apart from the usual hazards facing a detective Vachell survives being trampled by a wounded buffalo, which turns out to be attempted murder (although obviously the buffalo is the weapon rather than the murderer). Instead of cigar ash and footprints in the shrubbery the clues are things like elephant droppings (which it turns out can provide a great deal of information). And instead of alibis being provided by cab drivers or waiters they are provided by things like herds of buffalo (which we discover really can provide an alibi).

The question of a motive for the murders is complicated by the fact that the participants in the safari are also indulging in an age-old indoor sport, jumping in and out of bed with each other with a fine disregard for the conventions of matrimony.

One interesting feature of this novel is that the Africans do not speak in an exaggerated pidgin English manner. They speak pretty much the way you’d expect people who had been educated in a mission school to speak - in reasonably correct English. Huxley does not give the impression of having any doubts about the morality of Britain’s imperial mission but she was brought up in Kenya so she was presumably quite familiar with the way Africans in Kenya spoke. The Africans do suspect that the murders may be connected with witchcraft, and in 1938 that was probably a fairly universal belief. If you’re the sort of person who anguishes over the lack of political correctness in 1930 novels you’ll be rather perplexed by this book - it’s really neither politically correct nor politically incorrect. Huxley just describes the Africa she knew without offering any judgements at all.

A golden age detective novel must of course stand or fall on its plotting, and most crucially on whether it delivers a satisfactory solution. There’s also the matter of fair play. To convince us that she is plying fair Huxley provides copious footnotes in the closing stages linking us to the important clues. And the clues are often extremely clever. There are however two flies in the ointment for me. Firstly, there’s an incredibly vital clue which I feel is fudged. At the end she pulls a rabbit out of a hat to explain it away. And it really is the most vital clue of all. Secondly, she utilises a certain plot device which I personally feel does not actually break the rules but is contrary to the spirit of the game. So I’m not persuaded that this story is absolutely one hundred percent fair play. But it has to be said that many readers are not bothered by this not uncommon device.

And to compensate for these minor flaws there are the very very clever murder methods. The best thing about them is that they’re not just clever - they could only work in Africa. Many of the clues could also only work in Africa. I always admire writers who don’t just use exotic settings to add colour but make the setting vital to the plot.

Murder on Safari is also an exceptionally entertaining read. Recommended.

Friday, November 8, 2019

A for Andromeda

A for Andromeda is a novelisation of one of the most famous science fiction television series of all time, a series that gave Julie Christie her first big break. The seven-part serial was screened on the BBC in 1961. Tragically the BBC, in its infinite wisdom, later destroyed the entire series apart from one of the seven episodes. The follow-up series, The Andromeda Breakthrough (in which Susan Hampshire replaced Julie Christie), survives and was also novelised  (I’ll be reviewing it soon).

The A for Andromeda TV series was co-written by astronomer and science fiction author Sir Fred Hoyle and John Elliot. The novelisation was credited to Hoyle and Elliot. It was written by Elliot but the idea and the story were Hoyle’s.

The audio of the entire TV series does survive and the missing episodes have been reconstructed using the audio and production stills (of which there were hundreds) so it’s possible to get a reasonable idea of what it was like and how it compares to the novelisation.

A new British radio-telescope has just been commissioned. And they’ve discovered something rather interesting. And rather startling. It’s a signal, from the region of the Andromeda constellation. A signal that appears to have meaning. It may even be a message. A message that has taken two hundred years reach us.

Dr Fleming, who was the first to realise that the signal was an intelligible message, has figured what the message is. It’s a set of instructions. In fact it’s a design, for a super-computer. And the message also contains the data to run through this computer.

Oddly enough the super-computer, once built, seems extraordinarily interested in how the human body works, about our biochemistry, our DNA, all that sort of stuff. It seems to be interested in producing a design for something else. Something biological. This is all starting to worry Dr Fleming. The more he thinks about it the more sinister implications he sees.

This is a first contact story but an intriguingly unconventional one. There’s no actual contact with aliens. The alien planet is 200 light years away and this book assumes that faster-than-light travel, or communication, really is impossible. There’s no possibility of actual communication. The only contact is the message containing the design for a computer, for a biological something, and lots of data. The aliens are not going to be arriving in spaceships. The only aliens in the story are the ones created by humans, following the alien design. Those aliens have no means of contacting their home planet. And are they truly alien? Are they human-like alien creations or alien-like human creations or some kind of alien-human hybrid? Are they alive or are they machines, or are they biological machines?

The book addresses the political, social and existential consequences of this and of hybridisation but it also explores the personal and psychological consequences. There’s a certain “trapped between two cultures” element as far as the heroine (or villainess depending on your point of view) is concerned.

This was 1961, a time when computers still used punch cards, but the primitiveness of the computers doesn’t matter. The ideas of human-machine interfaces and human-machine hybrids, are as provocative and as relevant as ever. This is a tale that deals with concepts like artificial intelligence, post-humanism, the fuzzy boundaries between biological and machine life, what it means to be human, what our ultimate destiny might be and the problem of the extent to which there can be genuine communication, and more importantly genuine trust, between human and alien and human and machine. This is a story that is really not even slightly dated.

While Elliot may have written the book it’s probably fair to assume that most of the interesting hard science fictional ideas were Hoyle’s. This is classic high-concept big-ideas science fiction.

While this is hard science fiction it’s also to some extent a spy thriller. It’s set in the late 60s, in a world in which the West is threatened and anxious and Britain is little more than an American satellite state. It’s also a world in which gigantic corporate cartels wield immense power and one of these cartels is extremely interested in that message from Andromeda. The government and the military are also very interested in the products of that alien design and they’re possibly less trustworthy even than the aliens. They’re certainly far more stupid and short-sighted.

A for Andromeda is smart provocative science fiction. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 1, 2019

L. Ron Hubbard's Typewriter in the Sky

Typewriter in the Sky is an intriguing and unconventional 1940 science fiction/fantasy/adventure novel by L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986).

Yes, that L. Ron Hubbard. The inventor of Dianetics, the founder of the Church of Scientology. Everyone knows that Hubbard was a science fiction writer but it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming that he was probably a bad science fiction writer and that nobody apart from Scientologists bothers to read his novels, or should bother to read them. And the fact that people tend to have very strong views on the subject of Scientology makes it very hard for them to approach anything he did without either idolatry or extreme hostility. In fact feelings on the subject can run so high that it might be advisable at this point for me to state that I am not a Scientologist, I know very little about Scientology and I have no particular axe to grind one way or the other.

The truth is that, leaving Scientology aside, on the evidence of Typewriter in the Sky Hubbard was a very good and very interesting science fiction writer. And he was also a highly successful one.

Typewriter in the Sky is a clever and very unconventional novel. The ideas that Hubbard is playing around with have become quite familiar having been used many times since. It has to be kept in mind that when Hubbard wrote this novel in 1940 those ideas were fresh and wildly original.

Horace Hackett is a pulp writer. Like most pulp writers he works in various genres but he is best known for his adventure stories. He has received a generous advance from his publisher Jules Montcalm for his latest potboiler. Being a writer he naturally spent the money immediately.

Hackett’s problem is that he has not actually written the novel. He has not even started writing it. He has not even given the matter any real thought. And now his publisher wants the manuscript and he wants it yesterday. If not yesterday, then he certainly wants it now. Montcalm confronts him in his apartment, where he’s idly chatting with his buddy Mike de Wolf, and demands to be given at the very least an outline of the plot. Hackett has to think fast and he bluffs his way through by making up an outlandish plot on the spot. Montcalm is particularly anxious to know about the villain. Since Hackett does not yet have a villain he bluffs again by constructing a villain, a Spanish admiral named Miguel de Lobo, based on his buddy Mike.

And then Mike suddenly finds himself wading ashore on a Caribbean island with dim memories of standing on the poop deck of his flagship which has just fought an unsuccessful action against English pirates. When confronted by a couple of pirates on the beach he dispatches them with his rapier. Which is odd because a moment ago he was unarmed. Mike is taken in by a beautiful young woman, the daughter of the English governor of the island, but the locals want to hang him as a damned Spanish Papist. In 1640 the English were not fond of Spanish Papists. For it seems that Mike is no longer in the year 1940 but the year 1640.

The other odd thing is a strange sound that he hears in the sky. It almost sounds like a typewriter.

A horrible realisation hits Mike. He is a character in a Horace Hackett pirate story. Being a fictional character is bad enough but being a character in a Horace Hackett novel is much worse - it means he is a fictional character in a very bad novel. Which explains why some of the historical details seem to be totally wrong - Hackett is a hack writer notorious for his lack of interest in historical accuracy. It also explains why Mike finds himself speaking in pulp fiction clichés - he’s talking like a character in a Horace Hackett novel. And then the worst point of all strikes Mike - he’s not just a fictional charter, he’s the villain, and he knows what happens to Horace Hackett’s villains.

It’s a good premise but what’s really impressive is how cleverly and how wittily Hubbard exploits it. The reader is in on the joke right from the start. Hubbard is not trying to bamboozle the reader - it’s poor Mike who is bewildered. He knows from the start that he’s become a fictional character but he doesn’t know the rules. Is he a mere puppet, dancing to Hackett’s tune? Does he have any actual control over the outcome of events? Can he determine his own destiny? Is he even speaking his own lines or just the lines that Hackett feeds him? Of course the question of how much control we have over our destinies applies to all of us to some extent, not just fictional characters. Maybe we’re all just playing parts written for us by a typewriter in the sky. The problem is that we’re never sure if we’re playing a rôle in a farce or a tragedy, or just a meaningless pulp tale cranked out by a hack writer.

Hubbard explores these existential questions but he never gets pompous or tedious about it. It’s clever and occasionally quite thought-provoking but the tone remains playful. Life is just a pulp fiction story so why get worked up about it?

The basic idea had been tentatively explored in experimental fiction but I think it’s true to say that Hubbard was the first to see its potential for a science fiction story. And although these ideas have been tackled many times since I don’t think they’ve ever been done with quite such lightness of touch.

Typewriter in the Sky is both an adventure story and a parody of adventure stories, both an existential tale and a science fiction tale, and it works equally well on all these levels. It’s amusing and intelligent and immense fun. Very highly recommended.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Charlie Chan Carries On

Charlie Chan Carries On was the fifth Charlie Chan novel by Earl Derr Biggers (1884-1933). It was published in 1930.

An elderly American man named Drake is found murdered in an up-market London hotel. Mr Drake had been part of an American around-the-world tour group organised by a Dr Lofton. Circumstances suggest that one of the members of the party must have been the murderer.

It’s a tough case for Chief Inspector Duff of Scotland Yard. No-one has a decent alibi and there are several shady characters in the party. A key attached to a watch chain seems likely to be an important clue but discovering just what it is that the key unlocks proves to be a baffling mystery.

With no real evidence there is no way to prevent the tour from continuing but Chief Inspector Duff isn’t giving up. His hunt for the killer will take him to France and Italy and it will take Detective-Sergeant Welby to Calcutta and thence to Yokohoma. And the tour part will leave a trail of corpses behind it.

But what has all this to do with Charlie Chan? Nothing at all. At least, nothing at all until a fateful day in Honolulu (well over halfway through the book) makes this a case for Detective Inspector Chan of the Honolulu Police Department. And a case with an unexpected very personal significance for Charlie. And it now becomes a classic shipboard mystery story. All the possible suspects are on board the ship steaming from Honolulu to San Francisco and Charlie has six days to discover which one is the killer.

Charlie is not sure whether to be pleased or appalled that he will have the assistance of Kashimo on the trip. Kashimo is a young Japanese Honolulu P.D. detective renowned for his ability to bungle the simplest tasks. Charlie tolerates him for two reasons. Firstly, his bungling is largely due to inexperience and excessive zeal. And secondly, for all his faults there is one aspect of police work at which Kashimo excels. When it comes to conducting a search he is very close to being a genius. He can find a clue that no other living policeman could find. And Kashimo will find just such a clue on this voyage.

I’m a huge fan of both shipboard mysteries and murder stories set in exotic locales and this one scores highly on both counts.

Charlie Chan Carries On was famed by Fox in 1931 with Warner Oland as Chan. Unfortunately this is now a lost film. One of the later Sidney Toler Chan films, the excellent Charlie Chan’s Murder Cruise, was also loosely based on the novel.

Despite their immense popularity in their day the Charlie Chan novels don’t (in my opinion) get as much respect as they deserve. Perhaps Biggers’ premature death in 1933 has something to do with this. Charlie Chan Carries On is not quite as good as The Black Camel but it’s still highly recommended.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana

Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana was published in 1958, providing another example of Greene’s ability to set his stories in places that were just about to hit the headlines (in 1959 Castro came to power).

Our Man in Havana is a spy story. It is the cynical, humorous and absurd tale of Jim Wormold, not exactly one of the shining lights of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Mr Wormold lives in Havana. He sells vacuum cleaners. He is moderately successful but unfortunately he has a daughter. That’s not unfortunate in itself but the daughter, Milly, is at the age at which daughters become very very expensive. Even worse, Milly has now conceived a passion for horses. She must have one. There is simply no way Mr Wormold can afford the upkeep on a horse as well as a daughter.

So it seems like a stroke of good luck when Mr Wormold is approached by Hawthorne. Hawthorne works for MI6 and he’s in the process of setting up an espionage network in Cuba. Hawthorne believe that a vacuum cleaner salesman is the perfect cover for a spy. Mr Wormold knows nothing of the world of espionage and has no interest in politics but the $150 a month plus expenses that Hawthorne offers him interests him quite a bit. So Mr Wormold becomes MI6’s man in Havana.

Initially Wormold is a bit worried by the fact that he nothing about the world of spies and knows nothing about recruiting agents but then he realises that it doesn’t matter. The network of agents he’s supposed to recruit don’t have to actually exist. The information he sends back to London doesn’t have to be real. It just needs to sound convincing. Pretty soon he has a whole network of imaginary agents and he’s sending off detailed reports to London with lots of disturbing information, none of it rel. He’s even sent them drawings of high-tech weaponry at a new top-secret military installation. The fact that these sophisticated weapons look a bit like parts of a vacuum cleaner somehow gets overlooked in all the excitement.

The head of MI6, C, is convinced that Wormold is  the most valuable agent they’ve ever had. The more fanciful his intelligence reports become the more certain C is that they must be true.

Things are going very nicely for Mr Wormold. Until somebody starts trying to kill his agents. Which is very disturbing since those agents don’t actually exist. Fiction is becoming reality.

Graham Greene of course had been a real-life spy for the British. He knew the incompetence and stupidity of MI6 at first hand. He knew that much of the intelligence provided by spies was simply fantasies concocted by the spies. The more intelligence you provide the more likely it is that the intelligence agency for which you work will continue to pay you. The intelligence doesn’t have to be true. It just has to be the sort of thing that the intelligence agency wants to hear.

Greene had converted to Catholicism in 1926. After the Second World War, and probably not coincidentally after his stint with MI6, Greene’s politics became steadily more leftist although it’s important to keep in mind that he was an old school leftist with nothing in common with the leftism of today. And while his Catholicisjm seems to recede into the background a little it’s also important to remember that he saw no conflict whatsoever between left-wing politics and Catholicism.

When he wrote this novel Greene seems to have been going through one of his upbeat phases (he was prone to frequent bouts of extreme depression). Wormold is more sympathetic than most Greene protagonists (you can’t really call any of Greene’s protagonists heroes). He’s a timid little man but he’s not a hopeless alcoholic and he hasn’t given in to despair or nihilism. He knows little about raising children but he’s managed to be a reasonably good father. He’s a nice guy. He isn’t very honest but he has no wish to do any harm to anybody. He thinks the espionage stuff is all very silly but if MI6 are foolish enough to pay him money he’ll take it. Even when he gets himself into deep trouble he doesn’t give in to despair. Whether he can extricate himself from the mess might be extremely doubtful but at least he’s going to try.

Despite the fact that Wormold never does any actual spying Our Man in Havana manages to be an enjoyable and exciting spy thriller. It’s also superb satire, and very funny. Greene’s contempt for spies is palpable and as in The Quiet American there’s an awareness of how much harm can be done by bungling intelligence agencies but it’s combined with genuine amusement.

A wonderful book. Very highly recommended.

Monday, October 7, 2019

F. Van Wyck Mason’s The Singapore Exile Murders

The Singapore Exile Murders was the fourteenth of F. Van Wyck Mason’s long-running and very successful series of spy thrillers featuring Hugh North of G-2, a U.S. Army intelligence officer. It appeared in 1939. Van Wyck Mason was a very strong believer in the virtues of exotic settings.

Captain North is already in a tight spot when the book opens. The British flying boat on which he was travelling from Hongkong to Singapore has run into a severe storm, so severe that it is forced down and takes shelter in the lagoon of a tiny uninhabited island. The aircraft is damaged and once the storm has blown itself out the flight to Singapore will be resumed. The danger is past. Or is it? In fact one of the passengers is destined not to reach Singapore alive.

The unexpected stopover gives North a chance to study his fellow passengers and they’re a more than unusually interesting lot. There are hints that some of them may not be quite what they seem. The wealthy Dutch businessman Barentse seems rather anxious about a big deal he is planning and about which he is very close-mouthed. His part-Javanese dancer girlfriend strikes North as am exceptionally jealous and perhaps even dangerous woman. Joan Buckley appears to be a respectable American girl but there are things abut her that just don’t fit. The White Russian Urbaniev might well be, like most White Russians, involved in plots. The haughty middle-aged Lady Helen Twining-Twyffort has her secrets. And muck-raking columnist Irene Walsh seems to be even better at discovering people’s secrets than the professional intelligence officer North, and discovering people’s secrets can be a risky business.

North is on a case, trying to track down a cashiered U.S. Army officer named Melville who has access to very highly classified material. North is intrigued to note that several of his fellow passengers are linked in some way to Melville.

Murder on an aircraft is an idea that was not used as often as you might expect in the interwar years although of course there were a few celebrated detective novels on that theme.

The first half of the book focuses to a large extent on North’s efforts to find the murderer, since it seems a reasonable assumption that the murder of someone linked to Melville is likely to be the key to finding him. North does discover the identity of the killer and finds that his difficulties have only just begun. The book now becomes more of a spy thriller but with plenty of plot twists still left up its sleeves.

North is a thorough professional but he’s also a man who enjoys the good life. By the good life he means high quality liquor and high quality women, both of which he consumes in large quantities. He is therefore by no means disappointed that there are two beautiful women who seem to be very intimately involved in the case. There is the glamorous part-Javanese dancer Madé Sayu, whose talents run to more than dancing. And there is all-American girl Joan Buckley. One of them might be a foreign agent. In fact both might be spies. Or both might be innocent. Fortunately both make charming companions so North doesn’t mind that he has to get to know them better, strictly in the line of duty of course. He also has to bear in mind that beautiful lady spies can potentially be quite deadly.

Naturally, this being 1939, there’s no graphic violence or sex. There is at times though a slightly grimmer atmosphere than you might expect. There’s some action and plenty of suspense.

The political aspects are interesting. The story takes place during the Munich Crisis in 1938. A major war seems imminent and no-one knows how many countries might eventually be drawn in. For an intelligence agent it’s a time of extreme paranoia. There are spies from several different countries mixed up in the Melville business, including Britain and Japan. The United States is of course at peace with all these countries but when it comes to the world of espionage every nation has to be considered a potential enemy. It’s actually the British rather than the Japanese that North is particularly worried by.

Van Wyck Mason’s spy thrillers are rather more serious in tone than most of the spy fiction of the inter-war years. They’re certainly too serious and too realistic to be regarded as pulp fiction. On the other hand they don’t have the literary pretensions of a Graham Greene or an Eric Ambler story. They are actually quite close in feel to John P. Marquand’s Mr Moto novels (such as Thank You, Mr Moto) although Marquand is a bit more literary and a bit more stylish.

The Singapore Exile Murders is a fine spy thriller. Highly recommended.

You should also check out Mason’s earlier The Budapest Parade Murders and the truly excellent The Branded Spy Murders.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

three more Ellery Queen TV episodes

Over on my Cult TV Lounge blog I’ve posted some remarks on a further three episodes of the truly excellent 1975-76 Ellery Queen television series.

The episodes in question are The Adventure of the Blunt Instrument, The Adventure of the Lover's Leap and The Adventure of Veronica's Veils.

Here’s the link to the post.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Ellen Wilkinson's The Division Bell Mystery

The Division Bell Mystery, published in 1932, was the only detective novel written by British Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson. It’s a locked-room mystery of sorts and it’s hardly surprising that she chose to set her story in the House of Commons.

The British Government has been negotiating a loan with an American financier, a Mr Oissel. Oissel is having dinner with the Home Secretary in one of the parliamentary dining rooms. The Home Secretary has to leave his guest for a few minutes to vote in a division and while he’s out of the room a shot is heard. The Home Secretary’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, Robert West, bursts in to find the financier dead. It seems to be suicide - there was no-one else in the room and no-one could have left without being seen. But of course it was not suicide. It was murder.

West finds himself having to play amateur detective. It’s not that Inspector Blackitt of Scotland Yard isn’t competent but the case has political implications and there are things that the Government might prefer the police not to know. In fact the case could provoke a full-scale political crisis, especially given that the Home Secretary’s involvement in the loan may have been at best unwise and indiscreet.

West being a very young MP (just twenty-nine). He would probably be wise not to confide in anybody but he’s in over his head and he’s not at all sure what he should do and he ends up confiding in just about everybody. Including journalists, City financiers, old school chums, left-wing lady Labour MPs and the granddaughter of the dead financier.

Of course it’s important to find the murderer but for West, the Home Secretary and just about everyone else the main focus is on saving the government. In fact nobody really cares about the murder very much at all.

Given Wilkinson’s politics you might be concerned that they would intrude on the story. And you’d be right to be concerned. She treats us to endless lectures on feminism.

It’s interesting that Wilkinson, a firebrand left-wing Labour MP, chose to make her hero a Tory junior MP. And not just a Tory, but a thoroughly decent fellow as well. But in fact he turns out not to be the hero of the story at all - that rôle is filled by a rather embarrassing Mary Sue in the person of a female Labour MP.

The author seems much more interested in the political intrigues than in the murder mystery. As a detective story it’s an abject failure. There’s no actual detecting. The solution is pulled out of a hat. The vital clues are not revealed until the end. The solution is too obvious. Wilkinson fails to provide the other suspects with any viable motives and she fails to provide any convincing red herrings.

As a political thriller it had some potential but that potential is never developed. It gradually loses whatever slight interest it might have had.

The only bright spot is that we get some fascinating details about parliamentary procedure and the architectural oddities of the Houses of Parliament.

Once again the real mystery here is why the British Library chose to include this book in its Classic Crime reprints series. They’ve reprinted a few real gems but they’ve also reissued far too many mediocre titles. The Division Bell Mystery is a mess. Definitely not recommended.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Secret Service Operator #5 - The Masked Invasion

Operator #5 (later renamed Secret Service Operator #5) was a pulp magazine of which 48 issues were published from 1934 to 1939. Initially each issue contained a standalone novel although later in the run The Purple Invasion was a connected cycle of thirteen novels. Frederick C. Davis wrote the first twenty issues. Later issues were written by Emile C. Tepperman and Wayne Rogers but all the novels were credited to Curtis Steele. The first novel was The Masked Invasion.

The hero of the series was a young man named Jimmy Christopher, who poses as a fashionable photographer named Carleton Victor but who is in fact Operator #5 of the United States Intelligence Service. He gets some invaluable assistance from a young Irish lad named Tim Donovan (Having the hero assisted by a brave teenaged boy was obviously a good way to appeal to the likely readership of pulps). Jimmy also gets occasional help from his identical twin sister Nan (yes I know that if they’re brother and sister they can’t be identical twins but hey it’s only a story). Jimmy’s dad, an ex-Secret Service man, also pitches in at times.

The Masked Invasion begins with a blackout in New York City but it’s more than a blackout. Everything stops working, including cars and even devices powered by batteries. There have been a series of these blackouts, each longer and covering a larger area than the previous one. There’s some dastardly plan behind all this, probably connected with the sinister Loo Kong (the Yellow Peril theme would be explored more fully in later issues) although Loo Kong is not the mastermind behind it.

The blackouts are caused by a Negative Ray machine invented by a brilliant but eccentric scientist. Obviously the Negative Ray machine will have to be tucked down but in the meantime other precautions must be taken. Fortunately only petrol engines are affected by the ray so the U.S. Government takes immediate steps to have powerful diesel-engined cars built. And diesel-engined aircraft, and even a couple of diesel-engined blimps. There’s only a cursory attempt to explain the Negative Ray machine - something to do with capturing and magnifying cosmic rays - but there’s no need for detailed explanations in a pulp story.

As soon as Nan is introduced into the story you just know that she’s going to get herself captured and held as a hostage in order to put pressure on Jimmy. This is pulp fiction and this story follows the pulp conventions to the letter.

Jimmy Christopher is your standard square-jawed action hero, heroic and noble and patriotic. The villains are totally evil and villainous.

As far as the chief villain is concerned there are two choices in this type of tale. His identity can be kept secret until the end, which has advantages from a dramatic point of view. Or his identity can be revealed immediately in which case there’s more opportunity to develop the full flavour of his particular evilness and the motivations which drove him to evil. The second option is probably the wiser choice. In this story, when the villain is unmasked, we can’t help feeling that we have no idea why he chose villainy as a career.

The mastermind has assistants that represent every source of paranoia that could be conceived in 1934 - there’s the wily Asiatic Loo Kong, there are communists, anarchists and even Czarists!

The plot is fast-moving and filled to the brim with action. The central idea is a good one and of course out means the stakes are high. The survival of the nation is in peril. It’s not just the Negative Ray and the Darkness. The conspirators have also employed pirates to seize dozens of ships which are now on their way to the United States filled with a vast army of armed cut-throats, and they’re foreigners to boot.

The style is pure pulp. There are no shades of grey. The armed blimp attack is fun and the body count is off the scale. The violence is plentiful but never graphic. There is of course zero sex. It’s all good clean fun. And it works. There were better science fiction/action pulps (such as Dusty Ayres And His Battle Birds or Dr Yen Sin or Doc Savage) but The Masked Invasion gets the job done with efficiency and energy. Recommended.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Edgar Wallace’s The Daffodil Mystery

Edgar Wallace’s The Daffodil Mystery was published in 1920. While Wallace was best known for his thrillers he wrote straight murder mysteries as well and The Daffodil Mystery falls into the latter category. It also appeared under the alternative title The Daffodil Murder.

Mr Thornton Lyne is a very rich young man. He owns a very lucrative business which he inherited from his father, his own contribution to the business being negligible. He has enjoyed every advantage in life. He fancies himself as a poet although those who have have read his one small published volume of verse are inclined to disagree. He is a poseur. He is also a very unpleasant young man and he has been making himself particularly offensive to one of his female employees, a Miss Odette Rider. She has rejected his advances and since spitefulness is another of his unattractive qualities he is determined to revenge himself upon her. His idea is to engage the well-known private detective Jack Tarling to help him frame Odette for an imaginary crime. Tarling indignantly refuses.

And then Thornton Lyne gets himself murdered. His body is found, minus coat and waistcoat and wearing slippers. Most curiously a bunch of daffodils has been placed on his chest.

Scotland Yard calls on Tarling help in this case because of a curious note, written in Chinese, found on the body. Tarling had been a very successful police detective in Shanghai and he has a Chinese assistant, Ling Chu. Ling Chu is most emphatically not a servant but a colleague and is a formidable detective in his own right.

The evidence all points towards Odette’s guilt but Tarling finds her to be a charming young woman and while nothing will deflect him from the path of duty he finds himself hoping that Odette will prove to be innocent.

The plot has some of the outrageousness you expect from Wallace but in spite of its convolutions the solution is simple and makes sense. As you might expect from Ling Chu’s presence the events of the present day have links to events in the past in China.

In 1920 the idea of the fair-play mystery has not yet been formalised. Insofar as writers played fair with their readers they did so by avoiding impossibilities in the plotting and by providing a puzzle that the detective could plausibly solve based on the clues available to him, clues that were not necessarily revealed to the reader until the ending. In spite of this there is one definite clue that does point very clearly to the identity of the criminal. Unless of course (like me) you manage to miss its significance! There are multiple suspects and they’re all quite plausible. And there is an unbreakable alibi as well.

Of course being a Wallace novel it has more action than the average detective novel.

The golden age of detective fiction had scarcely even begun when The Daffodil Mystery appeared but the idea of a murderer adding some bizarre touch to the victim’s body (in this case the daffodils) was one that would be used quite often by golden age writers, notably John Dickson Carr in the wonderful The Mad Hatter Mystery and Ellery Queen in The Chinese Orange Mystery (and the latter of course has a China connection as well).

Ling Chu is quite an interesting character. He is honest, but sometimes he is honest in a misleading way. He takes care of the investigation of most of the vital physical clues including some very puzzling footprints. He’s not quite an early anticipation of Charlie Chan. He’s a lot more ruthless for one thing - he has his own ideas about the way to interrogate suspects and they’re not for the faint-hearted. Sometimes bad men try to lie to detectives but they don’t lie to Ling Chu.

Tarling also has a certain nostalgia for his earlier career in Shanghai when the rules under which policemen operated were much more flexible. Working for Scotland Yard can be a bit restrictive.

It's perhaps worth pointing out that despite the China connection and the slightly lurid cover this is not by any stretch of the imagination a Yellow Peril novel.

The Daffodil Mystery represents the slightly less outlandish side to Edgar Wallace but it’s still thoroughly enjoyable. Recommended.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Larry Niven's Neutron Star

Neutron Star is a 1968 short story collection which contains some of Larry Niven’s earliest Known Space Stories.

Neutron Star introduces us to the Puppeteers, the alien race that plays such an important part in the Known Space stories. A small spaceship recently came to grief in the vicinity of a neutron star. Something managed to get through the General Products hull to kill the crew. Which is of course impossible. Nothing can penetrate a General Products hull. The Puppeteers (who own General Products) hire Beowulf Shaeffer to make the same trip to the neutron star to find out what happened. In the unlikely event he survives he will be paid a great deal of money.

It’s a story that serves as a good introduction to the Known Space tales. There’s a strong hard science fiction element, there are touches of humour and there’s danger and adventure.

A Relic of the Empire concerns Dr Richard Schultz-Mann who is on a rather inhospitable planet looking for plant from the era of the Slaver Empire which ended billions of years ago. He’s found some and rather odd plants they are. At the moment he has other concerns - space pirates have just arrived on the planet. This is a bad thing, but Dr Mann thinks he may be able to turn it into a good thing. There is one thing that really frightens Dr Mann, but it’s not space pirates. There are some interesting twists in this story.

In At the Core the puppeteers hire Beowulf Shaeffer to plot an experimental spacecraft on an unprecedented voyage to the centre of the galaxy. It’s a publicity stunt. It’s also a voyage almost unimaginably longer than any previous voyage of space exploration by any species. At the core he finds something he would have preferred not to find. It certainly has a dramatic effect on the puppeteeers. It’s an OK story.

In The Soft Weapon a spacefaring couple make an exciting discovery - a stasis box from the time of the Slaver Empire, a billion and a half years ago. Unfortunately a Kzin warcraft is on the scene. The Kzin are hoping the stasis box will contain some kind of super-weapon. What it does contain is pretty startling. A good story.

Flatlander is another extraordinary voyage for Beowulf Shaeffer, in company with a rich man named Elephant. Elephant wants to visit the most peculiar planet in Known Space it seems like a good idea to ask the Outsiders (one of the more bizarre alien races in the Known Space stories). The Outsiders sell information and although their prices are high they have a reputation for scrupulous honesty. The Outsiders provide the necessary information although Beowulf Shaeffer can’t help feeling that it would have been worth paying the extra money the Outsiders asked for one more piece of information - the exact nature of the peculiarity of this particular planet. They set off for the planet anyway and Elephant learns something that Beowulf Shaeffer has alway known. A fairly clever story.

The Ethics of Madness is about a paranoiac. He’s not an actual paranoiac, but a potential one. As long as he gets his meds he’ll be OK but while regular checks by automated doctors might seem a foolproof way of ensuring that his brain chemistry remains stable no invention is ever entirely foolproof. When he does go mad it sets off a vendetta on a truly galactic scale. The twist is not unexpected but it’s still effective and it’s a fine story. And it’s an example of Niven’s interesting perspective on ethics.

The Handicapped is the story of some very peculiar aliens. The Grog are blind and deaf and entirely sedentary and they have no means of communication whatsoever but they have very large brains. Large enough to suggest that they are intelligent, and possibly very intelligent. But it’s impossible to imagine a creature with less use for intelligence. It just doesn’t make sense. Garvey is in the business of providing artificial aids for sentient beings with no hands but the Grog are a real challenge - there seems to be no way of finding out whether they really are sentient or not. Garvey has a strange feeling about these creatures but the truth is even stranger than he could have imagined. Another story involving ethical dilemmas, and a very good one.

Grendel gives Beowulf Shaeffer a chance to play the hero and he’s very unhappy about it. He’s on a spacecraft which is attacked by pirates. An alien is kidnapped. This could have serious repercussions for relations between humans and the aliens in question. In company with another human, a rather adventurous one from Jinx, Shaeffer reluctantly sets out to effect a rescue. He has a theory about how the kidnapping was done. There’s perhaps more emphasis on action rather than hard SF elements in this story but it’s entertaining.

On the whole Neutron Star is old-fashioned high-concept hard SF but with plenty of characteristic Larry Niven touches. Enjoyable stuff. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain

Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain was published in 1934. William Melville Caverhill (1910-1983) had along and colourful career in the theatre, radio and television as an actor, producer, playwright and presenter. In the 30s he wrote a handful of successful detective novels under the name Alan Melville.

It all starts, fittingly, on opening night In this case the London opening night of a musical comedy spectacular from producer-impresario Douglas B. Douglas. In Act Two a brigand is supposed to threaten the hero with a revolver and then fire a single shot. The hero will suffer a slight flesh wound. It’s a dramatic moment but on this opening night it’s even more dramas that it was intended to be. Brandon Baker, playing the hero, suffers more than a flesh wound. The actor is shot dead on stage in front of two thousand people. Shortly thereafter the actor who fired the fatal shot, Hilary Foster, is found in his dressing room. He has hanged himself.

Luckily the opening audience includes Inspector Wilson of Scotland Yard. Also in the audience is Wilson’s son, a newspaper reporter, who will function as Wilson’s sidekick.

Inspector Wilson has a theory about the gun. He also has a theory about the bullet fired from the gun. Unfortunately his theory is not quite compatible with the medical evidence presented at the inquest.

One odd thing about the inquest is that Brandon Baker’s widow was there. Brandon Baker’s widow was also at his funeral. But they were two different women.

There’s also the matter of the word written on the wallpaper in the leading lady’s flat.

Some of the action takes place in the theatre but much of it takes place in a small village in Buckinghamshire.

This is a comic detective novel. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. The problem is that it tries too hard to be funny, and it tries to be funny all the time. Sometimes it is funny but sometimes the humour is a bit forced. And sometimes it’s a bit wearying.

Still, there are plenty of things to like about theatrical murder mysteries. The idea of theatre people slaughtering each other is very appealing. And there’s the potential for interesting and offbeat murder methods. The first murder in this book has some potentially interesting angles although they’re not developed very much.

The main problem here is that the author is not interested in writing a detective novel. He’s interested in writing a witty satire, mostly a satire on the commercial theatre but also a satire on detective novels. His main interest in detective fiction is in making fun of it. That’s a generous explanation for the sketchiness and dullness of the plot. A less generous explanation would have been the common one of a writer from outside the genre thinking that writing detective novels is incredibly easy and then failing when it they try to write one.

It’s always irritating when you get to the end and the author pulls a rabbit out of a hat. In this case the author pulls a whole troop of rabbits out of a hat. And does so in a way that suggests a kind of sneering contempt for fans of detective fiction.

As a detective novel it’s a washout. As a theatrical satire it might have been amusing at the time but the people it’s satirising are now long dead and the kind of theatre it’s satirising is also long dead.

The fact that the British Library Crime Classics collection now includes no less than three Alan Melville novels can only be described as bizarre.

Quick Curtain is quite simply a waste of time. Avoid this one.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Thea von Harbou's The Indian Tomb

Thea von Harbou (1888-1954) was a German novelist and screenwriter. She was married for a time to Fritz Lang. She wrote the screenplays for all his films from 1920 to 1933, which include some of the greatest cinematic masterpieces of all time so she has some claims to being Germany’s most important screenwriter. She was also a popular novelist and she wrote novelisations of some of the screenplays she wrote for Lang, including Metropolis. She was very much influenced by Karl May, a German writer of adventure stories (including an immense number of westerns). She was a popular commercial writer but judging by this book and by the only other book of hers that I’ve read, Metropolis, she’s a very underrated and under-appreciated writer.

The Indian Tomb was written in 1918 and was a major success. It has been filmed three times, including a late 1950s version by Fritz Lang. It’s only comparatively recently that it’s been made available in an English translation.

The Indian Tomb is the story of a German architect recently recovered from a near-fatal illness who receives an unusual commission. He is told that he must leave immediately for India, he must in fact leave that very night. He knows nothing of the man who has offered him the commission other than the fact that he is immensely wealthy and he wants a tomb for his recent deceased wife. The tomb must be not merely beautiful, it must surpass even the Taj Mahal. The architect is offered a fabulous sum of money but it is the challenge and the opportunity that causes him to accept the commission. This is a chance to build something greater than he has ever built before, something grate than he could ever have imagined building.

He arrives at the prince’s palace, and meets the prince. At first it all seems a bit bewildering but he expected that. And then he finds that the situation is not all what he expected and the job is not what he expected. He cannot do, but he may have no choice. He’s entered a strange nightmare world. The palace is a wonderful creation, a combination of extraordinary beauty and extraordinary horror, filled with wonders and terrors. It’s more like city than a palace, or perhaps a vast prison. If only his beloved wife were there with him. He has heard her voice but of course the was a dream. She is back home in Germany.

The palace is built on an island in a lake. In fact it is the island. The lake has some peculiar properties. Many men have tried to swim the lake. None survived.

There is a very entertaining interlude in the home of the jeweller Mohammed ben Hassan. His home is more like an amazing fortress, filled with unimaginable riches.

If you’re familiar with Metropolis then you’ll know that von Harbou was fascinated by imaginary cities and by strange and sometimes sinister architecture. It’s no accident that the hero of the novel is an architect - perhaps only an architect could survive the prince’s palace, although of course an architect might be particularly susceptible to the madness of the place.

The prince’s motives are mysterious. He offers explanations but Fürbringer has no way of being sure what these explanations mean. They almost certainly don’t mean what they appear to mean.

One of the best things about the book is that von Harbou was fascinated by India but never set foot there. This is an India of the imagination. It’s an amalgam of traveler’s tales, the Arabian Nights, fairy tales and pure fancy. It’s a bit like the Arabian Nights retold by Kafka.

Fürbringer has entered a world in which he knows none of the rules. That’s the main obstacle to escape - where would he escape to? He is in an alien world and he doesn’t even know what to be afraid of.

And once he thinks he’s figured things out he still doesn’t really understand why is going on.

There’s a lot to admire in this book. Unfortunately it has one flaw and it’s a near-fatal flaw. I can’t tell you what it is because it would be a huge spoiler. Interestingly, the ending has similarities to the ending of one of Fritz Lang’s American films, not written by Thea von Harbou.

Despite the flaw it’s an interesting book with lots of exoticism and some great weird sinister atmosphere (the horses are a nice touch but I’m not going to tell you what’s so delightfully and creepily strange about them). So I’d still recommend this book. Metropolis on the other hand is a great book.

Fritz Lang's 1959 movie version of The Indian Tomb, the two-part film known as the Indian Epic, is excellent.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Christopher St John Sprigg's Death of an Airman

Death of an Airman was the fourth of seven detective novels written by Englishman Christopher St John Sprigg (1907-37). It was published in 1934 and it was well received by critics including Dorothy L. Sayers.

At around the time this novel was published Sprigg was developing what would soon become an all-consuming interest in Marxism. He wrote voluminously on Marxism and in 1936 went off to fight for the cause of communism in the Spanish Civil War. Within a very short space of time at the front he was killed in action.

There isn’t much indication of Sprigg’s growing political convictions in Death of an Airman. He was a man who evidently took his political beliefs very very seriously but the tone of the novel is light and breezy. The central character of the novel is a bishop which is interesting. Sprigg was raised as a Catholic. It was not unusual in those day for devout Catholics to transform themselves into devout Marxists. You might suspect that Spring chose a clergyman as protagonist in order to mock a belief system that he was in the process of abandoning but I can’t find much in the book to support such a notion. The bishop gives the impression of being a decent sort of chap, quite sincere in his religious beliefs, fairly easy-going, quite intelligent and very perceptive. It was not uncommon for doctrinaire Marxists to be doctrinaire atheists as well but I can’t see any evidence here of such sentiments.

The only thing that makes Dr Marriott, Bishop of Cootamundra (he’s an Australian bishop and he’s an Anglican), even slightly unusual is his passion for flying. He has joined the Boston Aero Club to learn to fly. His instructor was to be George Furnace, the club’s chief instructor. Furnace is a very experienced pilot and generally well liked. On the day on which he is to have his first lesson the bishop arrives early. Furnace has taken his aircraft up for a spin, apparently something he often does to clear the mental cobwebs. Much to the horror of those watching from the ground, including the bishop, Furnace’s plane goes into a spin from which it does not recover. Furnace’s body is cut out of the wreck. He was apparently killed instantly. The cause of death is perfectly obvious and there is no need for a post-mortem.

It’s all a bit odd. The aeroplane was regularly serviced and had recently been overhauled and inspected and all the control cables had been renewed. It seems very unlikely that the controls could have jammed. Furnace was such an experienced and cautious pilot that it seems hardly credible that he would have been unable to regain control. And he had recently had a medical examination and was in perfect health so it also seems unlikely that he could have blacked out. Of course there is one possible explanation but Furnace was well liked and no-one wants to consider the possibility of suicide. The inquest naturally brings in a verdict of death by misadventure.

Dr Marriott is however puzzled and a little disturbed. If you’re a clergyman in a remote part of Australia it is useful to have some medical knowledge as well and as part of his preparation for missionary work Dr Marriott undertook a three-year medical course at university. He may not be a qualified physician but he has a pretty fair acquaintance with cases of sudden death and there’s something he noticed when he saw the body not long after the crash. Something that didn’t seem quite right.

This is in fact an impossible crime story, but you won’t know that until you’re well into the book. At first it’s a puzzling death. As more and more evidence comes to light it becomes apparent that George Furnace’s death was quite impossible. The police can come up with no explanation that is consistent with the evidence. The worry with impossible crimes is always that the eventual solution will be a let-down but in this case the solution is both satisfactory and clever.

There are three detectives in this story. Inspector Creighton is the local man in charge but when it becomes apparent that the case has wider ramifications Inspector Bernard Bray of Scotland Yard (one of Sprigg’s regular characters) is called in to assist. And then there’s the bishop, without whose amateur sleuthing none of the facts would have come to light.

There are a lot of lady pilots in this story. Of course if you’re going to do a murder mystery centred on a flying club you’re going to have to find a way to work some female characters into the story so making them aviatrices is logical enough. And in the 1930s lady flyers were quite a big thing. They provided good copy for the newspapers and had definite celebrity status. And aviation provides a glamorous and exciting setting for the story (it helps that Sprigg had an aviation background so he knew his stuff). Sprigg may have been on the road to becoming an ardent communist but in 1934 he certainly had the right commercial instincts when it came to writing his detective novels.

Sprigg’s style is sly and witty and very appealing. There is a great deal of amusement to be had here but he does not allow it to get out of hand. This is primarily a mystery and he certainly does not neglect plotting. The howdunit angle is perhaps more important than the whodunit aspect and it’s fairly clued and nicely devious.

In his introduction to the British Library edition Martin Edwards describes Death of an Airman as an unorthodox whodunit. I must confess that this puzzles me. It struck me as being absolutely orthodox. In fact that’s what makes it so thoroughly enjoyable - it’s an orthodox mystery but it’s executed with immense skill and style. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 2, 2019

John Sherwood's Ambush for Anatol

Ambush for Anatol was the third of John Sherwood’s five spy thrillers featuring Charles Blessington. It was published in 1952 (and in the United States the title was changed to Murder of a Mistress).

John Sherwood (1913-2002) was an amazingly obscure if moderately prolific writer. He wrote a series of cozy mysteries with a horticultural theme and he also wrote the five Mr Blessington espionage thrillers between 1949 and 1954. I assume he was English but I know so little about him that I cannot even be absolutely certain that the author of the Celia Grant cozy mysteries and the author of the Mr Blessington spy thrillers are one and the same man.

Ambush for Anatol begins with a fairly sizeable cast of characters spending Bank Holiday Monday on Hampstead Heath. Philip and Diana Abinger are slowly subsiding into genteel poverty. Philip was an RAF fighter pilot during the war but since then he has been unable to make a go of anything. Now he thinks his luck may have changed. He ran into a Polish count with whom he had served in the RAF. Count Jan Piatovsky has some mysterious financial scheme going and although Philip has his doubts as to whether it’s likely to be strictly legal he’s desperate enough to try anything. Piatovsky and his common law wife are also on the Heath on the fatal day. As is the formidable but unpleasant Lady Bernberg. Everyone seems to be there to meet Anatol. The result is a double murder.

As it happens Mr Blessington has already become aware of other aspects of this case. Mr Blessington is a treasury official and one of his jobs is to prevent evasions of the British Government’s extraordinarily strict foreign currency regulations. He suspects that someone has cooked up an entirely new and ingenious means of circumventing the regulations and he’s pretty sure that it’s connected with this double murder. He decides that it would be advisable to have a word with Inspector Lunt at Scotland Yard.

In fact there’s rather more to this case than evasion of currency regulations. In fact there’s something much more sinister going on. This is a spy thriller of sorts, although it takes quite a while for the espionage angle to kick in. The espionage angle here is actually fairly original.

What one really hopes for in a thriller of this vintage is a “murder and mayhem on a train” angle and if the train senes happen on the Continent that’s even better. Ambush for Anatol not only delivers this it also has a “danger in the skies” angle as well. The action moves from London to Paris and then the French Riviera.

One of the most interesting things about this novel is its depiction of the dreary and depressing world of Britain in the period of postwar austerity. Years after having supposedly won the war Britain feels more like a defeated nation, with rationing still in force and with an economy in ruins. It was a miserable world for the working class but it was also a demoralising world for the middle and upper middle classes. Philip and Diana Abinger were typical of countless middle class people who were just barely managing to keep their heads above water. It was obviously a world in which people could easily convince themselves that things like smuggling and financial crimes were not really crimes. While this novel does not descend into tedious social commentary there are some genuinely intriguing social elements. The people who have become involved in this conspiracy are people who would certainly never have involved themselves in such desperate adventures in pre-war days.

While it was published in the same year that the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels appeared Ambush for Anatol belongs to a more genteel era of spy fiction. It’s not wildly dissimilar in tone to Victor Canning’s Panther’s Moon. In this era of British spy fiction novels featuring professional spies were still slightly unusual. Ambush for Anatol is a bit of a hybrid. It has the innocents caught up in espionage angle but there’s a professional spy hero as well. Mr Blessington is not quite a professional spy in the James Bond mould and he’s certainly not a conventional action, he is a professional spy of sorts. It’s clear that his work for the Treasury is not confined to shuffling papers in an office.

Mr Blessington looks like a typical civil servant. He is middle aged, bespectacled and rather overweight. He is however more than a mere civil servant. His razor-sharp mind makes him extremely dangerous and he can be breathtakingly ruthless when the occasion demands it. He carries a gun and he’s quite prepared to use it. He may remind some readers a little of Edgar Wallace’s Mr J.G. Reeder, a man who also seemed extraordinarily inoffensive and even slightly ridiculous on the surface but was the terror of Britain’s underworld. All in all Mr Blessington is a rather engaging character.

I’m not going to try to convince you that Ambush for Anatol is an adrenaline-chaged roller-coaster ride of action and excitement but it does have a few reasonably thrilling moments and it’s rather enjoyable. I suppose you could describe it as a cozy spy thriller. Recommended.